Articles - About the Hobby: Adding to My Skill Set
One of the things I enjoy most about the hobby of model railroading is learning new things. More specifically, I like learning new skills. Humans suffer from the fear-of-the-unknown, and so we tend to stick to the things we know best. This, of course, limits what you can experience in a life-time. In this article I wish to capture the skill sets I have acquired while model railroading, and which ones I still want to learn.
When I was in my early teen-age years, I was very much interested in building things. My parents bought me Lego® with which I built all sorts of temporary things. This even included a Lego train set (not as sophisticated as the ones that are available today). My Dad was into electronics and woodworking, so I got into both of those as well (electronics more than woodworking, primarily due to space constraints). Looking back over the years, while general education is good, of all the things I have learned, the vast majority of them are self-taught. If a topic fascinates me, then I am willing to put in the time to learn. In the early days, this was from books and magazines. Since the availability of the Internet, web sites and online videos, are now also part of my go-to resources. I have mixed-emotions about education (i.e. going to school). On the one hand people have to learn how to read, write, and do some basic math. On the other hand, much about schools is about memorization of bits and pieces that are of no use out in the real world. I think, when the basics are done, a student should be able to decide on a field of specialization, something that actually holds his or her interest. And, perhaps be able to pursue more than one area of interest.
When I returned back to the hobby of model railroading in 1999 (after a number of years of woodworking as my main hobby), electronics were one area where things came naturally for me. In college I spent the first three years majoring in Electrical Engineering, but then I learned that the field of electronics that the University specialized in was not of interest to me (I was interested in designing integrated circuits, which they only covered in one class). So, I switched and wound up getting my degree in Mathematics. After I got married, and eventually became dissatisfied with the type of work I could find, I spent time teaching myself how to program in the C++ computer programming language. While I didn't get the full-rounded Computer Science degree education, I was able to create software applications. This got me a job and started my career in computer programming. In 2001 I decided that I had had enough of working for others, and started my own company (eventually renamed to Fourth Ray Software). This is what I love to do more than anything, and it is all self-taught.

Core Hobby Skills

The other key part I enjoy about model railroading is that it covers so many areas. If you decide to build your own layout from nothing, these are the areas you will need to master (or get help on, paid or free):

  1. planning, design, and organization.

  2. effective purchasing (budgeting, buying only what you need), and learning how to sell your items you no longer need.

  3. woodworking, to build your benchwork or module.

  4. track design and installation.

  5. prototype research, unless you go completely freelance.

  6. locomotive and car research, construction, and/or detailing.

  7. structure building.

  8. scenery construction (water, land, grass, bushes, trees, roads, etc.).

  9. electronics (DC, DCC, AC, wiring, LEDs, lighting).

  10. turnout controls, and control panel design and construction.

  11. photography to document your work for yourself, your friends, or for articles.

  12. deal with the emotions of throwing a layout away and starting over again (due to bad design, changes of interest, or moving).


Building things from scratch (i.e. mostly just raw parts) is one of my favorite activities in this hobby. I started doing it due to limited availability of hobby funds. Hand-laying turnouts in N-scale was really my first serious effort. I found that waiting for a custom order for a couple of turnouts took too long, and I found it to be rather expensive. Hand-laying turnouts was scary at first, but became easier the more of them I did.

Then when I switched from N-scale to S-scale, I started scratchbuilding freight cars (see the photo of the PRR GLa two-bay hopper car below), because there were some specific ones I wanted and they weren't available. Almost all of my structures I have built from scratch. What follows are some of my thoughts about scratchbuilding.
Adding to My Skill Set
As you start off by gluing the first couple of pieces together, the project is new and exciting. Assuming you have some of the materials in stock, it costs very little, other than some time. The main parts of the model go together relatively quickly, and within no time you have what looks like a reasonable facsimile of a scaled-down version of the item you are trying to build. You are not too worried about the project, because you don't have much invested in it yet.

Even though the project may not seem to go too fast, it is lightning speed compared to the detailing phase, which slows the project down to a near glacial speed. If you are modeling outside of the main scales (HO and N), you will likely have to fabricate a lot of the detail parts yourself (and figure out how to do that). The project is moving along, but the hours invested are starting to add up rapidly.

However, there will come a day, assuming you don't give up, when you officially declare the build finished. With the countless hours you have slaved over this project, you want to shout your jubilation from the mountain-top, or publish it in the local newspaper. However, you find that the moment is rather uneventful. After all of that concentrated effort, you just realize, "Oh, it is actually finished!". No fireworks.
Adding to My Skill Set
Up next is the cleaning and painting of the model. This is a very scary moment, because one wrong move with the airbrush (or the air, or the moisture, or the paint mixture, or position of the sun and the moon, or how you hold your mouth at that moment :-) ), and your hard work will look rather bad.

OK, so the paint job wasn't too bad. Not great, but passable. Up next is applying the decals. Now it really gets intense. This step is not for the faint-of-heart. A true make-it-or-break-it moment. You decide to be totally clear-headed. No coffee that morning; no alcohol the night before. You get all your tools and materials ready. You practice the steps in your head, like a pro athlete. After carefully cutting out the decal from the sheet, you place it in the water. So far, so good. You make the surface of the model wet, and you place the decal on it. Horrors of horrors, the decal folds over on itself. Panic strikes. You begin to sweat. So much effort spent on this project, and now it is ruined. You take a deep breath, and carefully apply more water to the decal and with some fine tools and a small brush, you manage to rescue the decal. Several careful applications of Walthers' Solvaset gets the decal to nicely snuggle into the creases and crevices of the model. Life is good again.

I have found that as you get further along in a project, it gets harder and harder. It is really a mental game, because you constantly remind yourself of the money and many hours that you have invested in the project. The thought of having to trash it all and start over is too much to bear. However, the combination of the enthusiasm you had at the beginning of the project, and the vision you have in your head of the completed model, will help you through those "hard" times. The reward at the end of the journey/battle is worth it. Now you can say, if only to yourself, "I built that!".

Developing Skill Sets

Just going through the process above, I have learned about different glues, different paints (and the tools needed to do a good paint job), attaching different pieces of material together, planning, purchasing, doing the research, and come up parts that look like the real thing. Furthermore, if you succeed, you will have learned patience, perseverance, and general stick-to-it-iveness. These are handy skills to have regardless of which hobby you engage in.
If you model in either of the two major scales (HO and N), you can pretty much buy the cars and engines that you want. When I switched to S-scale, even though a lot of stuff is available (yes, you do have look a bit harder), there were things that I just didn't need to worry about when I was in N-scale. The railroad I model (the Pennsylvania Railroad) needs hoppers, lots of coal-loaded hoppers. They are readily available in HO- and N-scale. Not so much in S-scale. So, out of necessity, I started building an S-scale hopper (see the photo below of the PRR H21a I built). This was a skill I didn't really need in N-scale. In the process of going through that first effort, I discovered something about myself; I actually really enjoy gluing pieces of styrene together to eventually wind up with a credible model of the real thing! So, don't be afraid to change (scales, railroads, or even hobbies), because you never know if you'll come across something that you enjoy even more.
Adding to My Skill Set

Planned Skill Sets

So, to date, I have built, from scratching, three N-scale bridges, one N-scale turntable, three S-scale bridges, seven S-scale buildings, four S-scale hoppers, and three S-scale flat cars. On top of that, I have build a good number of N-scale and now S-scale turnouts. Since about 2003, almost all of the regular track has also been built from individual pieces of rail. While none of these items would have ever won any major contests, they are all credible models of the real thing (or imagined real things, in the case of some of my structures). I am very happy to have built them, and I still enjoy the process very much.
However, I am not done yet. Not only do I want to build more of the items listed above, I want to also challenge myself in building other things that will expand my skill set. Here is a list of the ones I am planning on building from scratch, in this order (all in S-scale):

  1. PRR caboose: N6b

  2. coal mine tipple

  3. PRR passenger car: coach

  4. tipple power station

  5. tipple water tower

  6. tipple overhead walkway

  7. PRR steam locomotive tender (one for each of the following)

  8. PRR 4-6-0 steam locomotive

  9. PRR 2-8-0 steam locomotive

  10. PRR 2-10-0 steam locomotive